Strong sentiments about the rights of property owners are held dear in Mississippi. But when property rights come up against economic progress, things get fuzzy.
The use of eminent domain proceedings in the state is common for public projects such as road building. But using eminent domain to provide land for economic development, such as is the case regarding the new Nissan plant planned in Canton, is rare in the state.
“It is my feeling from reading economic development journals that eminent domain for economic development is much more common in other areas of the country,” said J. Britt Herrin, executive director of the Pike County Economic Development District. “Cities or counties in metropolitan areas commonly use eminent domain to condemn property for public use. It is pretty rare in Mississippi except for highways.”
Herrin said the fact that eminent domain is only very rarely used for economic development in Mississippi stems from the state respecting individual property rights more than other states. The fact that condemnation of land for the Nissan project generated so much publicity and controversy is evidence of the novelty of using eminent domain to take land for industrial development in Mississippi.
“It is utilized only in very rare circumstances here,” Herrin said. “You need to be able to utilize it to accomplish the public good. It is a sticky situation because you are balancing individual rights of property owners against the benefit to the citizenry as a whole. That is always going to be a tough call. But it is something that needs to be an option for economic development projects because economic development is a major public concern, as are highways.”
Although commonly used for highway developments, and rarely very controversial, Herrin said development of an industrial park can benefit the entire community as much as a highway expansion.
“It happens every day for highways, but only once in a blue moon is it needed for an industrial park,” Herrin said. “But for the individual victim of eminent domain proceedings, whether it is for a highway or industrial park, it doesn’t matter to them.”
Charleigh Ford Jr., executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes County Economic Development Authority in Columbus, said without eminent domain authority there wouldn’t be any public roads.
“It has been used in this county as I’m sure it has been used in every county in the state,” Ford said. “We have to be careful not to abuse it, and not take any more land than is needed. You have to clearly demonstrate that what you are going to use the property for is for the public good. In the case of Nissan, I think it is for the public good. We’re even looking up here to benefit from Nissan. We have a strategy for Northeast Mississippi and there is another development group in East Central Mississippi also looking to attract second tier suppliers for the Nissan plant.”
Ford said it is important to balance economic development needs with the rights of private landowners. But he believes it is vital when attracting mega projects like the Nissan plant to be able to provide land and other resources for the industry.
“If we don’t, someone else will,” Ford said. “As you know, it is very, very competitive attracting these kinds of developments. And whenever you get into an incentive package, you are going to be criticized for it. But, in the long run I think the good will outweigh any bad we’re going to have.”
Dave Hohman, an attorney with Dave Hohman Associates in Winter Haven, Fla., specializes in eminent domain cases, and works in Mississippi as well as Florida. Currently his firm has been working on cases involving the widening of U.S. 61 in Wilkinson County.
“The conflict is usually whether there is enough compensation for the property being acquired,” Hohman said. “Everyone’s property in this country is subject to the eminent domain law for acquiring property for a public purpose. If the government can show there is a need for project, it is just a matter of how much the compensation should be.”
There can be a perception on behalf of property owners involved in eminent domain proceedings that the government has an edge, and that property appraisals are likely to be too low. But Hohman, whose practice is 99% eminent domain proceedings, says he has never seen pressure by the government to value property at less than what it is worth.
“There is never pressure by the government to low ball the appraiser,” Hohman said. “But the property owner would always like to have more money.”
Hohman likened it to asking people if they think they are paid enough.
“You would like more money in your paycheck,” he said. “And I would, too.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.